Tattoo Meanings

Have you ever wondered what the meaning is behind a person’s tattoo? Well, you’re in luck. Here is a handy guide to help you learn the traditional meaning, or meanings, behind a huge assortment of different tattoos. Of course, everyone has their own personal meanings attached to their tattoos so don’t assume that any of these answers are definite, think of them as a sort of guideline.

Butterflies: These insects symbolize a metamorphosis, change, rebirth and beauty. Known for physically entering the world as a colorless caterpillar before emerging from a cocoon a vibrant, winged butterfly. In Japanese tradition the butterfly is seen as the representation of someone’s soul. The Greek word for butterfly loosely translates into soul. To the Chinese seeing two butterflies flying together is a symbol of love.

  • Metamorphosis, change, rebirth, souls, love, beauty

3 Butterfly palm tattoo by Shane Gallagher on tattooer rose hardy

Lions: Seen as a source of strength, courage and protection. Known for their hunting skills and ferocity. These commanding creatures are a part of legends and myths all over the globe. For the ancient Egyptians they were used as war deities because the lioness is known for her aggressive attributes and protection. In the Hindu religion Vishnu is one of the five primary forms of God and he takes the form of a half lion/half man. Lions are often also seen in front of imperial palaces in China as symbols of protection.

  • Courage, strength, protection


Tigers: In Chinese tradition the Tiger represents fearlessness, royalty and is one of the 12 animals of their Zodiac. It is the equal rival of the Chinese Dragon and white tigers are one of the four symbols in their constellations. In Buddhism the tiger is one of the three senseless creatures symbolizing anger. The tiger is also the national animal of South Korea, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and India.

  • Power, aggression, strength


Eagles: These regal birds are used as national symbols in many Eastern European countries, Mexico, India, Egypt, Armenia and the United States. The eagle and its feathers are also important to the native people of the Americas and seen as a source of power. Eagles vary in size and color and are found all over the world.

  • Nationalism, power


Wolves: Known as “okami” or “great god” to the Japanese; shrines are dedicated to the wolf asking for it to protect crops from boars and deer. Navajo myths view the wolf as mystical beings, essentially humans in disguise. In Roman mythology a wolf was responsible for saving the lives of Romulus and Remus – the founders of Rome – when they were abandoned as babies. Wolves are used to symbolize greed and destruction throughout the Bible.

  • Dog, loyalty, greed, destruction


Monkey: Often viewed as mischievous, lively, and fun creatures with child-like characteristics. To Buddhists the monkey represents an early incarnation of Buddha, symbolizing trickery and ugliness. The monkey is also one of the three Chinese senseless creatures symbolizing greed. “The three wise monkeys,” Mizaru (see no evil), Kikazaru (hear no evil), and Iwazaru (speak no evil) are a staple of Japanese folklore.

  • Trickery, mischief, fun


Dragon: The dragon is the fifth animal in the Chinese Zodiac. The English word for Dragon comes from a Greek word meaning huge water snake. In European tradition the dragon has been seen as a cave dwelling serpent; a creature with mystical powers to be conquered and feared. In Asian traditions it has been used as a symbol of power for emperors associated with wisdom and longevity.

  • Power, mysticism


Dolphin: Since the American movie, Flipper people have grown fond of these marine mammals. The back of ancient Greek coins depicted a small boy riding on the back of a dolphin. In Hinduism spotting a dolphin while on a ship was often seen as a good omen.

  • Good luck, love, protection, wisdom


Black Panther: Made popular by tattoo pioneer Amund Dietzel (1890-1973) these black cats have several meanings depending on the time period. First used because the fluidity and shape of the animal when in a crawling position translated well on to human muscles and body placement. With the rise of the Black Panther party in the 1960′s the animal came to represent black pride.

  • Cats, black power


Whale: One of the largest animals in the world, the whale is part of the folklore of many different cultures. When a beached whale was found on a beach by an Inuit deity it threw the world’s order into disarray, according to the legend. Order was not restored until the whale was returned to the sea. The east African legend of King Sulemani uses the whale to teach humility to the greedy king.

  • Ancestors, humility


Scarab Beetle: An Egyptian amulet modeled after the dung beetle that rolls into a ball to lay eggs. The scarab is meant to represent the heavenly cycle; much like what the sun god, Ra, does when he rolls across the sky transforming souls and bodies.

  • Transformation, rebirth


Ankh: Seen as the Egyptian symbol of life or the handled cross. Ankh translates to “eternal life.” Often found on Egyptian tombs to assure their gift of life to the mummy of the deceased.

  • Eternal life


Eye of Horus: An Egyptian symbol of protection. Horus was the ancient Egyptian sky god. His right eye was associated with the sun god Ra.

  • Protection


Christian Cross: A symbol of Christianity representing the crucifixion of Jesus.


Celtic Cross: The Irish take on the iconic symbol of Christianity.


Upside down cross/St. Peter’s cross: Representative of the crucifixion of St. Peter on an upside down cross. The image is often used as a symbol in Satanism.


Swastika: Used as symbol meaning love and good fortune throughout Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism for centuries but more commonly associated with the Nazis since they adopted the symbol prior to World War II.


Ganesh: This elephant-headed Hindu deity is seen as the remover of obstacles and creator of new beginnings; he is also one of the 5 primary deities. Commonly depict3ed with a third eye (three horizontal lines), a goad, a noose, a rosary, and a broken tusk.

  • New beginnings


Shiva: The supreme god of Hinduism who is followed by a group call Saivites. He is the third member of the trinity possessing the power to destroy the universe. His attributes include a third eye, crescent moon, ashes, matted hair, blue throat, sacred Ganges, tiger skin, serpents, deer, a trident, a small drum, and a small bull.

  • Power


Krishna: Portrayed as a young blue boy playing a flute with his front leg bent; he guides and directs Bhagavad Gita. A sect of Hinduism is dedicated to Krishna and its followers are called Hare Krishnas.

  • Guidance


Kali: The Hindu goddess associated with death, energy, change, and time. Depicted standing on a corpse, carrying a sword, trident, and a skull cup catching the blood of a severed head.

  • Death, change, time.


Jester: First employed by European monarchs as a form of entertainment for the court. Seen as professionals with skills such as joke telling, juggling, and playing music.

  • Comedy, fools

Carnival Masquerade Mask tattoo by Moni Marino

Spiderwebs: Spiders spin webs to trap and imprison prey, Spiderwebs are now commonly used to symbolize the amount of time spent in jail by ex-convicts.

  • Prison, time


Anchor: Used by members of the Navy or Marines to symbolize time spent abroad.

  • Old School, Navy, Marines


Cherries: With their round, plump and ripe appearance the cherry represents fertility, femininity, and desire.

  • Fertility, desire


Mermaids: Mythological creatures that have a human’s body with a fish’s tail. As objects of both beauty and danger legend has it that mermaids used to lure sailors to their death.

  • Old School, beauty


Ships: Traditionally done with the words “Homeward Bound” beneath the ship. Sometimes marking a particular route of a sailor and as good luck for their safe return.

  • Old school, sailors


Swallows: For sailors seeing a bird meant that land was nearby. Swallows can be used to mark how many years a sailor has been at sea. They can also have a romantic connotation since swallows mate for life.

  • Old School, Navy, love


Pin Up Girls: Worn as the ideal of beauty and attraction; a woman that is attractive enough to pin up on a wall.

  • Beauty


Stars: Many cultures give great importance to stars. Stars can serve as tools for navigation for sailors and travelers. Stars are also considered to be objects of power and wish granting. Different stars have different meaning.

Nautical Stars: Usually a 5-point star with half of each leg filled in was very popular among sailors. Typically symbolized the North Star and is considered a symbol of a safe return.

  • Old school, stars, the sea


Shooting stars: Symbolize good luck and wish granting capabilities. 

  • Good luck


Pentagram: An upside down five-point star that can either be a symbol associated with Satanism or an Egyptian symbol for the celestial world and the five elements.

  • Devil, Wicca, the world

Tattoo by Oilburner of Sin City Tattoo in Paicoma, CA

Star of David: A six-point star referred to as the Shield of David is representative of the Jewish faith.

  • Judaism


Cherry Blossoms: Used in Japanese culture to represent the transience of life since the blossoms do not have a long life span and fall to their death gracefully.

  • Life


Koi: Also known as the Japanese carp these fish are symbols of perseverance. According to Chinese legend a koi who succeeds in swimming to the falling point of the Yellow River — a place called Dragon’s Gate — will transform into a dragon.

  • Strength, perseverance


Geisha: Translated into English “geisha” means artist. These women are trained entertainers who offer everything; from keeping up to current events to singing for a patron’s enjoyment. They are thought to represent an ideal of beauty.

  • Beauty, the arts


Phoenix: This mythological bird that rises from its own ashes before ultimately burning once again is seen as a symbol of resurrection. Often drawn as part peacock and part pheasant with flames toward their tail feathers.

  • Resurrection, new beginnings


Lotus Flower: The lotus is considered the flower of perfection and is therefore used to symbolize purity. Lotus tattoos are traditionally done in one of five different colors with each having a different meaning: white for purity of mind, red for love and compassion, blue for wisdom, purple for mysticism and pink is considered the supreme lotus color.


Yin and Yang: The balance between good and evil, the duality of man.

  • Good and evil


Zombie: According to voodoo legends a shaman has the power to bring the dead back to life, however, they remain under the control of the shaman and have no will of their own. In recent years zombies have become quite popular in movies and comics.

  • Death, mindlessness

Realistic and graphic zombie portrait

Wizard: Wizards, warlocks, magicians, witches, and sorcerers exist in the folklore of most cultures around the world. Depending on the culture wizards can be either good or evil; the one constant is that they are depicted as being both magical and all-powerful.

  • Magic, power



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